Monday, February 20, 2006


Re-re-re-reading Pauline Kael's essay Raising Kane, which still seems the best single essay I've read on anything. It's odd, I can't remember particularly liking any other Kael I've read, indeed I can't remember any other Kael, despite huffing and puffing through I Lost It At The Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which isn't a good sign. But Raising Kane is driving me back to 'em, it's that good.

I keep on being impressed by Kael's ability to keep stepping back and back from Citizen Kane while keeping everything in focus. There's no point trying to sum up the whole essay, I might as well type the whole thing out. It's a bit like Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in that it gives you not so much a new perspective on movies as a whole new behind the scenes at the sausage factory dimension, all the more shocking because it's stuff you really ought to have known, or worked out yourself, even if you've already dimly figgered that there's just no way that movies are made by individuals called Directors - unless they're Russ Meyer.

One of the many joys of Raising Kane is the insight it provides on where the movie came from - what now seems like a paleontology of 1930's cinema, after it calcified from a living culture to a petrified film studies topic. She calls Citizen Kane:
perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher. A great deal in the movie that was conventional and almost banal in 1941 is so far in the past as to have been forgotten and become new.
Kael's terrific on the individual talents involved in that era: Hecht, Mankiewicz, Perelman, Preston Sturges, Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart, et al - the vicious circles of 1920's broadway playwrights and journalists who moved West to play at Hollywood Hacks. I'm particularly charmed that not only did they write screenplays revolving entirely about East Coast journalists (especially Editors, now an endangered species, restricted to the breeding pair of Spiderman's J. Jonah Jameson and Harry Hacket in The Paper), they also re-wrote their own Broadway plays as "original" screenplays, and, even better re-wrote each other's old plays.

(Pause for brief shout for Ian Hamilton's brilliant Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951 (Heinemann, London, 1990/Harper, NY, 1990), which has the best opening quote EVAH)

Anyhow, here's Kael on how Hollywood resisted the tough skepticism of the East Coast writers:
Ben Hecht said he shuddered at the touches von Sternberg introduced into Underworld: "My head villain, Bull Weed, after robbing a bank, emerged with a suitcase full of money and paused in the crowded street to notice a blind beggar and give him a coin before making his getaway". That's exactly the sort of thing that quantities of people react to emotionally as "deep" and as "art", and that many film enthusiasts treasure - the inflated sentimental with a mystical drip.
Inflated sentiment with a mystical drip? Yowsah! Another yelp of recognition and glee from yours drooly. This immediately velcroed itself to the gland in my brain still pulsing and smarting from the discussion of what is or isn't art, linking arms with Martin Amis' War Against Cliche. Here's to art and sentiment. They're not strictly opposed terms, but one extends wayyy beyond the reach of the other. Sentiment is no bad thing, but inflated sentiment (mystical drip optional, see your dealer for details) is Corn, arguably Hard-Core Corn.

No comments: